Wise men and subversive women
A reflection on Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Matthew 2:1-12by David A. Stevens
In Matthew’s Gospel, the visit of the Wise men begins like a romantic quest. Astrological speculators wonder at the heavens. Then they embark on a quixotic search for a holy grail. Foreign intellectuals follow a star to the home of a deliverer-to-be. They bear gifts fit for a king, not a toddler. And we smile. Yet the romantic quest is tinged with threat and finally doused with brutality, because the wise men are not the only ones on a quest; so is a mad man.
The first two chapters of Exodus lack any such romanticism. We are immediately plunged into a world of systematic dehumanization on a national scale: A savage dictator turns the wheels of state policy to brutalize slaves. But even under harsh labor the slaves multiply. So the king becomes ever more desperate for control and proposes even more extreme measures: Genocide, ethnic cleansing, a “final solution” to the problem of the Hebrews.
The victims experience terrible suffering. Yet, as often happens under extreme conditions, the victims rise to a miraculous newfound strength: Desperation births an indomitable will to live and the creativity that turns survival into a mission.
It would be suicidal for slaves to defy Pharaoh openly. Younger siblings know that you don’t assault your older brothers and sisters openly; you learn to be sneaky. Such is the case of the Hebrews: Initially, resistance takes subversive forms: cunning midwives, secretive mothers, stealthy sisters and brazen princesses. These people and their defiant acts build on one another into a sacred conspiracy, an underground church. Subversive women conspire to become the deliverers of the deliverer. It is mothering that starts the engine of liberation. It is subversive women who crystallize the life-dealing presence of God. Direct confrontations with Pharaoh will come, like the plagues and horses and riders sinking into the depths like a stone. But it is mothering that sends the tremor along the fault line; mothering is the branch scratching the roof that awakens the world to the gathering storm. These subversive acts kindle God’s memory and the burning bush.
There are six subversive women in our text: (1) Shiphrah and (2) Puah, the Hebrew midwives; (3) Moses’ mother; (4) Moses’ sister; (5) Pharaoh’s daughter and (6) the princess’ servant woman, who is barely mentioned. All these make a contribution to preserving the life of Moses, God’s chosen liberator.
These are not the only subversive women in the Bible. In 2 Kings 5 is the story of an Israelite girl, maybe the age of a seventh or eighth grader. She is abducted by foreign soldiers and comes to be a slave in the house of a Syrian general named Naaman. What a horrible ordeal, to be captured in a raid, displaced from family and friends! Yet she directs General Naaman to the prophet Elisha, who heals him from his illness. Naaman’s slave girl is a peacemaker, even under tragic circumstances.
And there are many more stories of subversive women in the Bible that are not told. We’d love to know the story of She’erah, barely mentioned in 1 Chronicles 7. She breaks the mold of women’s occupations by building cities. Was she the architect, the financier, the general contractor or all of the above? What was her personality like?
We’d love to know more about Joash’s nurse in 2 Kings 11. Queen Athaliah had seized power in Judah. She was a brutal dictator. She set about to kill all rivals to the throne. The legitimate king, Joash, was just a boy. But when Athaliah began her purge, Joash’s nurse hid him in a storage room in the Temple for six years. How did she keep a kid in a closet occupied for six years?
Or how about the Transjordanian women pioneers in Numbers 32? Moses makes the men from the 2½ tribes that settle east of the Jordan River help the other tribes get settled west of Jordan. So the women from the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh are on their own. They had to do the farming, shepherding, childrearing and defense. And they must have succeeded.
We do know the story of these subversive women at the time of Israel’s changed conditions in Egypt and Moses’ beginning. And the story is packed with irony. The Hebrews, who were the state-sponsored guests of a former Pharaoh, have become a national enemy. The current Pharaoh’s repeated efforts to crush the Hebrews are not only thwarted; the greater the oppression, the more the Hebrews thrive. The powerful head of government is outsmarted by women who deliver babies. Moses, the savior of the Hebrews, receives an Egyptian name and grows up in the Egyptian palace. Moses’ mother actually complies with Pharaoh’s decree; she puts the baby in the river but in a waterproof container. Moses’ sister stations herself to watch what happens. Then she appears conversing with the Princess of Egypt, as if that’s natural. The sister offers to arrange a nurse for the baby who turns out to be none other than Moses’ mother. So Moses’ mother not only saves her baby but winds up taking care of him, with the Egyptian princess paying her to do it. And the biggest irony of all—Pharaoh, who twice tries to kill off all the Hebrew boys, winds up having a Hebrew boy as an adopted grandson (Exodus 2:10). As Dunbar says in Dances with Wolves, “The strangeness of this life cannot be measured.”
It is the midwives who first stir the pot of the exodus, who lead off this crescendo of subversiveness. We learn from their example.
Shiphrah and Puah beg the question, What are the limits to the cooperation of God’s people with the governments under which we live? How much can Jesus’ followers participate in the wider culture, and where must they say no? What are the lines Christians cannot cross? At what point do we act as the midwives and “obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:39)?
This question can remain theoretical or at the periphery of our experience for long periods of time, then suddenly comes to center stage. My family and I were serving in Trinidad on Sept. 11, 2001. The word came from the U.S. Embassy for all Americans to keep a low profile; that’s a challenge when you’re among the few white-skinned people in the country. The embassy said Americans should not go out in public unless absolutely necessary. We met with the church leaders. We prayed and discerned. We decided we would obey the embassy where we could. But we would not curtail the work of ministry out of fear or simply because the government said so. Why? Because we are under the command of a higher authority.
This is what the Anabaptist women decided as well. The Anabaptist movement, from which Mennonites come, began during oppressive times. In 1527, the Anabaptist movement was barely two years old but spreading rapidly. This new spin on the Christian faith was considered heretical and dangerous by Catholics and Protestants alike. Anabaptism was outlawed, and Anabaptists were hunted down and executed. But the more the Pharaohs and Herods of that day tried to stamp them out, the more they thrived.
Perhaps the women were so active because they could move about less conspicuously than the men. But nothing detracts from the courage of these subversive women of Christ who spread the gospel beneath the radar of the authorities. As a result, Anabaptism did not merely survive but grew. Without their holy subversion, you and I would not be here today (from In the German city of Augsburg, Anabaptist women did not usually preach in public or baptize. Yet they were subversive leaders, crucial to life of the underground church. Scholastica Stierpaur held secret Anabaptist meetings and baptisms in her home. She also hid several Anabaptist pastors. Katharina Wiedenmann used her husband’s shoe business as a cover for secret Bible studies and alms distribution. Barbara Schleiffer’s grocery store was a perfect disguise for hiding Anabaptist refugees and passing on information. Several “sewing circles” in Augsburg were really evangelism circles.
Shiphrah and Puah’s great grandchildren are still with us: courageous and creative people who find ways to survive and thrive today in the face of oppression.
Sadiqa Basiri Saleem is a 28-year-old Afghan woman. She was the victim of a violent assault and rape. And she has a passion for the education of girls. She has started six schools for girls in eastern Afghanistan out of almost nothing, even though the Taliban forbids formal education for girls. Sadiqa’s passion is dangerous—for the teachers, the students and Sadiqa herself, who regularly receives threats on her life. Few learning materials are available. Sometimes only the bombed-out shell of a building is available to meet in. Yet despite all the difficulties, some of the girls gladly walk two hours each way to attend classes in mathematics, reading, writing and geography.
In Uganda, there has been a 21-year civil war. Militia groups raid villages at night. They kidnap the children, brainwash them and make them soldiers and sex slaves. But some courageous and subversive women have organized hidden “motels,” secret locations where children are guarded and sleep in safety. The children are escorted from their villages at dusk and walk miles to these hidden places. For some of these children this has been a way of life for a decade. Imagine if your child could not sleep safely in your house and every night had to walk miles to a secret place from the time he or she was a second grader until high school graduation.
These subversive women—and men—who bring hope in such desperate situations are not superstars. You just have to reach a point where you say: “Enough is enough. I won’t stand for it anymore. Things have to change, and I’m going to do something.” Like Jody Williams from the little town of Putney, Vt. She said, “Enough is enough. There are land mines all over the world. Some of them have been in the ground for more than 60 years, and they’re still killing people.” Jody said, “I won’t stand for it anymore,” and she did something about it. For her efforts she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Do Shiphrah and Puah have any great-grandchildren here today? Anybody motivated enough to organize a GuluWalk like two ordinary students did in Canada and raised $75,000 for commuter children in Uganda? Anybody motivated enough to help an Afghan girl get a pencil and a notebook because she would be thrilled to get them? You can make a difference in somebody’s life.
It is all connected. A ribbon runs through it. Because Moses survives, Israel is delivered, and Jesus is born, and we receive good news. All this comes from the God who challenges the Herods and the Pharaohs, challenges them through wise men and subversive women.
Our Lord knows what it’s like to have your life threatened by people with power. Jesus Christ continues his mission of deliverance, continues it through people who are fed up and hopeful and ready to do something. Are you ready to join him?
David A. Stevens is pastor at Eden Mennonite Church, Moundridge, Kan.
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